Feminist Media Studies Checklist: the Young Adult Novel Edition

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Gird yourselves for (yet another) rant about my best frenemy, the Young Adult adventure novel. As you may remember from my least popular blog posts, I read YA literature for fun. The kind where a young female protagonist lives in a fantasy or dystopic world and goes on some sort of physically taxing adventure usually to help people. You know, your standard Hunger Games or Divergent fare. I like these books mainly because I like the heroine: she’s strong and clever and brave and talented. She’s a survivor and generally the adventure she goes on helps her friends or family, often also her town or kingdom.

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yes I’m back with this shit again

YA books with this type of heroine seem pretty feminist-leaning, but they’re not always. A good amount of the time, the feministy heroine is plunked into a storyline that subtly normalizes racist and sexist cultural standards, and gives a pass to patriarchal gender relations. Only she doesn’t know it, and I suspect neither do the authors. (I hope) most people don’t create media with the intent of replicating the shittier parts of our cultural system. But what ends up happening is that the awesome heroine–a figure that is highly identifiable and consumable to many young adult women–accepts, responds to, and does pretty well in this kinda messed up world.

We in the feminist media studies biz spend a great deal of time illuminating how media producers create seemingly great media that roundabout perpetuates racist, sexist, and heterosexist ideologies. Laura Mulvey described how women’s bodies are positioned in films (for instance, every Hitchcock film) as sex objects to be desired and consumed by both the male protagonist and the audience that gazes at her through the point-of-view of the male protagonist. bell hooks analyzed how Paris is Burning director Jennie Livingston took an important cultural ritual in the lives of poor queer people of Color and presented it as an entertaining spectacle that White audiences laughed at. In both cases, well-intentioned content creators ultimately created a sexist and racist product because they were not careful with how they crafted their media world.

Alison Bechdel developed a simple rubric for gauging if a film creates a relevant context for women. Does the film have 1) two or more women; 2) that talk to each other; 3) about things other than a man.
h96uRThis test does not evaluate if the film is good, progressive, or feminist. It simply highlights the world of the film in regards to women characters and their holistic value to the plot.

I’ve started my own checklist for the YA novel with a female protagonist. It doesn’t identify if the book is good or even if its feminist. It only evaluates if the world under the heroine’s coat of shiny female empowerment perpetuates sexism, racism, or oppressive heterosexual gender roles.

Ok, the heroine is cool as fuck but…

1) Are there other women around too, or is the heroine mainly surrounded by male figures that are unique and complex like her? If there are other women, are they mainly a) evil queens; b) calculating mothers; c) vapid social climbers; or d) false friends/betrayers? Follow up: did the protagonist have a really great female friend who died or left, conveniently leaving her in need of a new essential partnership?

2) Speaking of the male love interest… Does he sometimes override the heroine’s own self-determination for reasons he feels are valid but she has told him are not? Is he at one point extremely physically or verbally cruel but frames it as something he must do to keep her away from worse danger? When she is in a situation of power over him, does he find ways to carve out power by withholding affection or abandoning her? Does she assume these actions are not because he is a dick but because she is not desirable or has made some type of capital relationship mistake?

3) Does the heroine gets some kind of makeover (in discord with her overall character) and her body is then marked by the male love interest, male friends, or others though stares or comments about her beauty? Does this serve to imply she is more beautiful in feminine trappings than in the clothing/hairstyles she wears for hero tasks?

4) Is there a part where the heroine’s emotional weakness rather than her physical strength and talent becomes the focus? Is that emotional weakness framed as a marker of her realizing “real feelings” for the male love interest? Does he momentarily engage and then withdraw affection in ways that encourage this emotional disorder?

5) Is the heroine’s age clearly articulated as 16 or 17 [under the legal age of consent for the majority of the book’s readership] but the male love interest is ambiguously older or described as a mature adult male? Does this adult male love interest sometimes get really mad and punch the wall close to the teenage heroine’s head or body?

6) Are the sex scenes riddled with creepy phrases such as “he took her mouth” or he “desired to bed her” or whatever other things might seem old timey sexy but enforce his sexual dominance? Is the sexual content triggered by him lecturing/yelling at her for “bad” behavior, or soothing her about some body or emotional insecurity that she could have worked through on her own timeline but that he pushes her to disclose or deal with at his lead?

7) Is rape, sexual assault, or disempowering forms of sex work/prostitution brought up as a threat to the heroine’s physicality or honor but never addressed in terms of how sexual domination is a persistent means of dehumanizing and controlling all women? In other words, is sexual assault a scary shadow used to show the heroine’s ultimate bravery and strength, or is it something the heroine understands is a cultural method of gender oppression that must be dealt with on a larger scale?

8) The heroine probably takes on a masculine or men’s job, skill, or social position. Is she able to do so because everyone feels these gender rules are arbitrary and many women are of a like mind, or is it because she is unique and awesome among women and can do something other women don’t want to or just won’t?

9) And just so we’re not dirtbags ourselves, let’s note if the heroine is described with White features like red hair and pale skin. Oh she is, I’m so surprised. Ok, are all the other main characters described with similar features/skin/hair for no clear geographical reason? Is the only description of someone not White a minor character or group, and are they described as having “golden brown” skin?

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Posted in #MediaGettingItWrong, books, culture, film, gender, popular culture, postfeminist, sexiness, sexism, young adult | Leave a comment

Professor Werk, or, what do professors do exactly like teach or some shit?

I’m heading back into the school year and I’m exhausted by all the work I’ve done this summer while not teaching. That’s not a joke, I worked all summer even though I didn’t teach any classes. People can be surprised at this because they see my job as all about teaching. I get that. Most people interact with professors on the front side; as students we see professors do werk by lecturing and leading classes and grading papers. I do that too. I like doing that. That’s a pretty affirming statement from a super introvert like me. In spite of my discomfort with freestyle lecturing, running open discussions, being stared at by forty students for seventy-five minutes, I feel like what I do in the classroom makes a difference. Students will say that what I taught them really changed how they see the world or gave them skills they will use forever. That’s pretty cool. I also get a lot of cat drawings, which is also cool.

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I literally had so many to choose from, you have no idea.

I like the front side. But I would argue that the front side—the teaching part—is a corollary of my actual job. The main thing professors do is create knowledge. I do this two ways.

Way #1: hey, do you like seat belts? What about Google? Heard the term intersectionality used to describe social injustice? All that shit was invented by professors. To be specific, professors thought up that shit, and then figured out a way to actualize it through research and experiments, and then explained it by writing it out clearly and supporting it with persuasive evidence. Then they sent it into the world and now we know!
maxresdefault.jpgPeople that are not professors can invent things at places that are not universities. But universities are locations where professors are paid to invent technology and ideas that could fundamentally alter cultural knowledges, add to society, change the world. When I got hired as a professor, it was with the understanding that I would teach for the university and also that I would think deeply and complexly about the world and its problems, come up with original and novel ideas, and put them into the world. Lest this sound like an easy deal, my knowledge output is measured and evaluated. In other words, professors have to prove that our thinking has led to original ideas and that original ideas have worth. How is such a thing proven? Through articles published in blind, peer-reviewed academic journals, by writing and publishing peer-reviewed books, presenting conference papers at national and international forums, being awarded grant funding, being invited to speak in various prestigious public forums… We have a fancy nihilist term for all this: publish or perish. I keep my job from year to year (and professors get tenured) by showing the material output of my thinking and also proving that a large body of my peers has deemed this output valuable.

Way #2: ok, so professors have to think up, write up, and publish up original knowledge. But the other way I create knowledge is by developing university curriculum. I don’t just teach classes, I work with my peers to grow fields of knowledge and then design curriculum that imparts key elements of those fields to students. When you take a class from a professor, you see the professor teach the content. But before you even get to this part, the professor has decided on the best texts to convey the content, on the units that best demonstrate the content, on the examples and keywords essential to the content. And they have also chosen the content itself. There are thousands of important ideas that make up my own field of Women’s and Gender Studies. My job is to know as much of that knowledge as I possibly can and then decide what parts are most important for students to learn and when they should learn them. When I get all that figured out, I then find texts and examples, write lessons, and design exercises that best convey my decisions. I trained for eleven years, which is the amount of years I spent getting my higher education degrees, to be able to do this. So I have a good background and good skills, but I could also draw on some pre-made resources like text readers and syllabus examples and activity banks. You know who came up with those readers, syllabi, and activity resources? Professors. And you know how I know they’re accurate? Because of my background and skills. In effect, my job is always to know about and sort through all the knowledge of a given field and then use my training to build a new set or unit of knowledge—a knowledgelet if you will—for students learning this field. I create the knowledge that exists in my field, and I create the units of knowledge that teach this field to others. And I grade papers too.

Lemmee wrap up by running some numbers. If you think that the whole of my job is teaching classes (as some human dumpster fire politicians have argued), then you must think being a professor is pretty easy because I don’t teach eight hours a day, forty hours a week. Actually, I teach four classes, twice a week and, at seventy-five minutes per class, that’s ten hours a week. Cool. If you had a forty-hour/week salaried job and one of the requirements was that you lead a staff meeting eight times a week, would you only be working when you were running those meetings? Or would you also be working when you came up with the topic of the meeting, collected materials, organized and wrote out your talking points, made visuals and handouts, sent out email reminders and agendas, and followed up with coworkers? Unless you’re in a really exploitative job, you probably get to count all this as part of your workweek. In fact, all this prep and these presentations might actually be a corollary of your actual job. That is, you got hired to do something in addition to these presentations, and you’re still responsible for doing and completing that something. If yer lucky, maybe you get to make some of your presentations overlap with this other part of your job. But probably not all eight, and probably not every week.

I teach, therefore I profess! Teaching is part of my job and it’s a great part and it’s the most visible part. But I also profess when I create knowledge and launch it out to the world. I don’t have summers off because that creating knowledge part is not contingent on me being in a classroom. Publish or perish doesn’t stop just because I am teaching more students or less students. I can do it anytime, and I do it all the time. This is a really hard and a really time consuming and a really important and a really crucial part of my job. Luckily, I trained a long time to do this work and, super luckily, I get paid to do it. Not everyone that makes knowledge gets paid for their labor. But professors do. It’s what we do.

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Why the fuck should I even care about benevolent sexism?

I was walking down the right side of a sidewalk (as literally every sidewalk etiquette article insists is correct). A man was walking toward me and, as our game of sidewalk chicken escalated, he frenetically gestured for me to move over to the left. Why? Because, he said, “ladies walk on the inside.” I told him (yelled after him after I sheepishly moved aside) that was incorrect and sexist. He told me (yelled behind him as he walked away) that was absolutely NOT sexist. Perhaps he fancied it was 1850 and he was  putting the lady he was escorting on the protected part of the sidewalk. That was a thing, I guess, because gentlemen needed to guard ladies from the ruffian side of the sidewalk where carriages and horses and puddles dared to exist. I think sidewalk guy  was attempting to be gentlemanly by enforcing this old-fashioned gesture of female protection. But he was actually telling a woman what to do with her body, making her move around him in spite of contemporary norms, and disrespecting her space and wishes. So it was sexist. But it was benevolent sexism.

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Thank god I’m on the inside of the curb or else satan would be able to grab me!

Slight topic detour: Peggy McIntosh describes how she was taught from a young age to only identify racism in conscious individual acts of meanness. Of course, this type of racism does happen. But McIntosh says this image prevented her—a White woman—from noticing how racist practices and policies were also institutionalized, and then how her own unthinking, non-malicious everyday actions reinforced these systems. Even if someone is not being consciously racist and even if the correlation between that person’s actions and the subjugation of people of Color isn’t super clear, they can still be perpetuating racism by participating in and benefiting from racist systems. You see, intent is not the same as effect.

Is your idea of sexism a manager saying he doesn’t promote women because they’re too volatile during their times of the month? Of course, this type of sexism does happen. But we also participate in sexism via subtle everyday practices that cast women as less qualified, less capable, less valuable, less able, less worthy, less whole, or more naturally inclined toward roles like being sex objects or doing unpaid domestic and menial labor. Sometimes gestures that are intended as genteel or flattering ultimately replicate notions that women are lesser and—here’s the kicker—that a woman’s expressed will is less significant than a man’s beliefs or intentions. Enter benevolent sexism.

Classic example: a man holds a door for a woman. Is this sexist? NOT NECESSARILY INTERNET TROLLS. Holding the door for all people, especially people that need aid, can be super nice! In this scenario, the woman says “that’s ok, I can get it” and the door holder insists because he’s a gentleman and he always holds doors for ladies. But why always and only ladies? And why does he insist? Is it because he’s trying to be polite? Yes. It is because he’s trying to treat women in a flattering way? Yes. Is it because he thinks women should be held to a different standard when it comes to labor, even when the labor isn’t really laborious? Yes. Is it because he thinks his idea of chivalry outweighs the woman’s expressed wants? Yes. Ah, now we’ve slipped into sexism. Door guy’s insistence is based on a sexist belief that women are generally less capable and also that what men think is correct for women is more important than what women think is correct for themselves. It wasn’t intended to be sexist, but the effect nevertheless was. Intent is not the same as effect.

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Let’s make an effort to read facial expressions here, shall we?

Lets do some more: once, a man on my bus detoured on his way off to tell me I was so pretty. A man in an airport gestured to me and said it was great to be next to one of the most beautiful women here. A man approached me at bar to say I had a “yoga” body. Another told me I was the perfect size but not to lose any more weight. So here’s the benevolent part: these interactions were clearly intended as complimentary and I strongly suspect that no comment would have been made if I did not pass the test. But I did and these men felt I should know. This knowledge was given, I believe, to make me feel good. But here’s the sexism part: the reason these men felt entitled and even obligated to tell me their personal judgments about my body is because our sexist institutions and our sexist media says that women’s value goes up when they are deemed desirable. Looking good—especially in ways that elicit men’s sexual desire—is an achievement and, for women, often a prerequisite to other forms of status and power. Chimamanda Adiche calls this bottom power. Rosalind Gill calls this a postfeminist sensibility. Whatever you name it, the sentiment is built on a foundation of sexism: women are of higher value when they are coveted objects of hetero-male desire.

Caveat: I like physical compliments from my partner and I liked them from people I went on dates with, provided the date was going ok. And of course some women do like physical compliments from strange men. What’s that you say, not all women are the same? Why, that’s true! But I—one woman speaking for herself—I don’t like them so I try not to respond at all, or say something neutral like “ok.” I don’t smile and I don’t say thank you because I’m not happy or thankful. This is generally met with confusion or indignation and sometimes anger. You see, it’s assumed that I will smile and say thank you because of the complimentary intent, even if the effect is that I am uncomfortable, and even if the effect is that I am being forced into a sexist interaction. Smiling and saying thank you is expected from me because I am woman, as is apologizing, acquiescing, not showing aggression, being ever so pleasing, and staying in my lane. Expecting and even requiring women to placate men above their own feelings, to accept the intent of a comment rather than its personal or social effects, well, that’s sexist.

Here’s where I answer my title: why the fuck should I even care about a man on a bus telling me I’m pretty when White male senators are making decisions about my reproductive heath care, when rape is handled egregiously in our law and order system, when transwomen of Color are murdered every fucking day? Make no mistake, we need to work on this shit. Badly. Loudly. All hands to battlestations! But there’s no limit on the sexist items we can work on. Some sexist shit is more urgent but all acts of sexism contribute to a sexist society. And Kristen Hubby argues that when we let benevolent sexism slide because we’re focused on hostile sexism, we allow a less visible but still very real form of sexism to harden into the framework of our society. Benevolent sexism is not necessarily hostile but it just as effectively forestalls social change. Schooling ourselves on benevolent sexism shouldn’t diminish the focus on hostile sexism. We can do both friends.

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DO NOT USE CATS TO HIGHLIGHT SEXIST SOCIAL TROPES HISTORICAL ADVERTISEMENT THAT’S MY DEAL

**Oh wait I have another caveat. Terms like men and women or male and female are just grossly inaccurate. Not all men do this, not all males do this, and sometimes people who are not men or males do this. It’s a bit more accurate to say these interactions are tied to categories of masculinity and femininity, but of course not all masculine people do this and not all feminine people do that. However, Kate Bornstein argues that if the binary categories of masculine and feminine and men and women and male and female didn’t carry such social weight, then sexism wouldn’t exist because sexism is a direct and intentional result of how our gender system is built. Ok I’m done now for reals.

Posted in culture, gender, sexism, society, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Imma just leave these tools here…

Hello Saucy readers, great day right? Guess that depends on what you look like, where you’re from, who you love, what organs you have in your body, what your health is or was at any point in your life, what religion you’re connected to even in the most broad sense of the term, and if you need to get anything done or care about anyone.

 You don’t need another blog article freaking you out because I’m assuming you’re already freaked out. Me too. Also, there’s a lot to be said and I’m not the person to say all of it. Instead my Saucies, imma furnish you with a few “toolbox terms” I’m teaching my students this week. These tools come from a set of lessons I initially wrote three years ago but I bet if you try reallllllyyyy hard you can connect them to current events. Like, really current events.untitled

Let’s start with an easy one. Xenophobia is a deep and irrational hatred towards “foreigners” or an unreasonable fear of unfamiliar people and their cultural objects and traditions. A belief that qualities such as geographical linage, immigrant status, or forms of culture constitute an immutable interpersonal difference springs from xenophobia. The examples I use in class are the popular justifications for not accepting refugees into a country, especially if those refugees were like, Jewish or are say, I dunno, Syrian.

Let’s step it up. Cultural racism stems from constant images and messages that affirm the diversity of White people and the inferiority, singularity, or negative stereotypical qualities of people of Color. As Beverly Tatum says, “if we live in an environment in which were are bombarded with stereotypical images in the media, are frequently exposed to the ethnic jokes of friends and family members, and are rarely informed of the accomplishments of oppressed groups, we will develop the negative categorizations of those groups that form the basis of prejudice” (“Defining Racism” 125). The examples I use in my class are the constant stream of news images and stories depicting Black protesters as little more than dangerous rioters and scary looters. Perhaps you might be able to think of recent examples where whole populations are characterized in a singular and derogatory way and then that pervasive cultural image is levied to forward political campaigns or federal mandates? Just a thought.

Yer gonna love this one: sincere fictions. People’s negative beliefs about other groups (generally ethnic/racial but can be extended to identities like sexual orientation) are usually unfeigned (i.e. sincerely believed) because a person in power has presented culturally racist or xenophobic statements as if they were truth or fact. Sad to say, but we usually trust authorities/news sources to tell us the truth or at least work with an objective baseline of facts. We also usually assume people in power are smart and educated. Or at least that they are smart and educated enough to make sure that what they say is factual and provable. The example I use in class is a statement called the “The Marriage Vow”–endorsed six years ago by Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum–that said that “a child born into slavery in 1860 was more likely to be raised by his mother and father in a two-parent household than [one born in 2008].” This statement is easily disprovable but some people believed it because two powerful politicians endorsed its validity.

Perhaps there are more recent examples where a prominent figure said [tweeted] something and people believed it, not necessarily because those people where malicious or dumb, but because they assumed the person in power was likely saying [tweeting] facts or objective statements, or at least fact-checking what was being said [tweeted]? Just a thought.

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I don’t see how this picture is in any way connected to anything I literally just said

Just for kicks, lets do two more I threw into the lesson mix this week. Biopolitics: when social and political power (often the state’s power) is wielded over life through the regulation of bodies, human processes, and bodily freedoms/movements. Abortion is a great example because the government seeks to control the bodies and lives of reproducing populations in every capacity-not just if bodies can choose to have (or not have) an abortion, but also under what conditions (rape, incest, life of mother), and where/how (geography, timeline, tests or mandatory statements). Biopolitics is also strongly connected to who can access health care, which body practices are illegal or legal, and which people can move around freely versus which are detained. At say, airports.

Last one, and it’s a goodie. Necropolitics is a context where the choice or line between life and death is made by the state or those in social and political power. Necropolitics is more than just the state’s authority to kill (for example, through the death penalty.) It also involves the state’s authority to invoke contexts of living death (the devaluation of a person’s life to the point of death) like slavery, and to expose people to physical death (like putting people in a situation where their death is imminent, or not helping people out of a situation where their death is imminent).

The biopolitical regulations of bodies in the form of say, temporary detainments, can easy slide into the necropolitical regulation of people into say, concentration camps.

To give a name to a social structure of power is a critical first step towards contesting and changing it. So let’s see if you can see and then name these terms in action, perhaps by checking your Twitter feed for 5 minutes any hour or day of the week. Bet you can!

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If she did, she would be saying “intersectional feminist movementS” and she would be wearing glitter. We all do.

Posted in academia, feminism, intersectionality, politics | Leave a comment

Young Adult book reviewers are the only thing winning 2017 right now

I read Young Adult books. I know. It started with the Hunger Games, which is completely legit. I moved into Divergent and they made that into movies [now TV movies, sorry Shailene Woodley] so that was ok. Then suddenly I was purchasing anything that was YA and written as a series and set in a different world and had a female protagonist that goes on adventures. Many of these books are not really that good. But I have my reasons for reading them, reasons connected to what a student once wrote on a class evaluation: “everything we talk about in class is negative.” I teach social sciences, so we analyze society. Society often sucks. Even when we talk about cool things like America’s Next Top Model, I make them identify and explain how the show perpetuates racist and neoliberal ideologies. I know. But media awareness is an important skill. You can love what you love but you must always love with your eyes open.

Anyway, I read Young Adult fantasy series books because sometimes you just can’t read more about Aleppo and the prison industrial complex. Sometimes you just gotta’ read about a 17 year old girl with like magic powers or whatever. This is embarrassing but not really my point. Let me get to my point. Right after this next paragraph.
6281d3ba-5016-4b99-8b28-3b9d6a31d229Sarah J. Maas’ Throne of Glass series is one I read. This is a very popular series but Maas is writing for a YA audience (and I guess some college professors too) so the characters can do immature things, and also there are plot holes sometimes, and there is a lot of crying. Lots of people cry. Oh and everyone has magic. And everyone is beautiful. And everyone is either 18 or 500 years old. I just read the newest book, Empire of Storms, because that’s what I do. Everything blew up at the end and I was so pissed that I actually went online to check reviews and see if other readers felt the same.

Here’s where I look like an asshole and the future looks a little brighter. Judging from the profile pictures, I’d wager most of the reviews I read were by teen girls and young women. Were they pissed at the ending like me? Nah, they were pissed at the lack of racial and sexual diversity, and the derisive sexual content. I know.

“This book has no diversity whatsoever. Every single main character is straight and white af [as fuck]. SJM [Sarah J. Maas] has like 50 pov characters between her two series, you’d think some of them would be a little different right? Right? Wrong” (Kimi).

Many criticisms were about how almost all the characters in this book were described as white people. Reviewers had iterations on this basic point: if the author could create a world with witches and fairies and magic, why couldn’t she describe like five of her bazillion main characters as something other than “golden” skinned? Excellent point, young reviewers. Double points for the phrase “straight and white af.”

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“in her previous books we’ve seen only one woman of color and no gay or lesbian person. Whether the publisher insisted or she herself decided to show ’em all, but EoS [Empire of Storms] is full of queers. And all of them are dead or unimportant and shows up only in one or two sentences. Plus the only bi character romances a woman. So what was that? ‘I have gays and lesbians! Fuck off!’ scream? Diversity for the sake of diversity is a mock. If you don’t feel like developing queer-relationships than stay away from this theme” (Katerina).

Many reviewers noted how only a few marginal characters had queer sexual identities or desires, and only one main character declares a bi-sexual identity but then is specifically put into a heterosexual romance. Double points to this reviewer for shredding fake liberalism: the inclusion of queer characters as a nod to diverse representation but without treating their relationship stories as valuable as heterosexual pairings. Visibility does not necessarily mean progressiveness. Very excellent point, young reviewers.

“I’m not against these [sex] scenes, but also didn’t need them. They didn’t really fit the tone and even felt a bit forced into the story in several places. I actually wish the page time had been spent elsewhere. (So basically, YES, you can skip them and it won’t affect anything). If the sexual content is what’s stopping you from reading this story, the pages in the US hardcover to skip are…” (Cait).

Overwhelmingly, reviewers said the harlequin romance-esque love scenes simply got in the way of the storytelling. I’m still working through why so many books written for a young female audience have these sex scenes, but it’s clearly connected to how the media so often handles young women’s bodies and desires. In our society, young women are told that they should long for the objectifying sexual attentions of men. Of course, young women are punished for being sexual (that includes reading sex scenes), but there is an overarching cultural ideology that says young women want to be sexy and desired because they know these qualities will transform them into socially powerful adults. So I suspect these harlequin romance-esque sex scenes are encoded into young women’s literature because media producers assume their readership identifies with the female protagonists, and thus will want the female protagonists to be highly sexually desired by men, and thus powerful women.

The sex scenes were not “rape romancey” or otherwise sexually humiliating (although I have problems with certain gross verbs and adjectives Maas uses). Many reviewers simply noted that that they added little to the plot and could the author use that space to work more on character development and battle scenes? Double points to this reviewer for actually including the page numbers of the scenes so people can just skip over them.

I spend about three months in my Intro to Women’s and Gender Studies class teaching college students how to do this exact type of critical work, and also why it’s important to practice apprehending the complexities of a given social situation, to hone the tools necessary to make educated, layered evaluations. Students can still love America’s Next Top Model, but they never get to watch it again without awareness.

I don’t want to imply that I thought teens and young adults couldn’t come up with these criticisms, only that I was surprised by the sharpness and ease with which so many hit these points in otherwise generally positive book reviews. That is, that they were able to love what they loved but with their eyes open to critical issues of race, sexual orientation, and sexual representation. 2016 was a hard year, and no doubt 2017 will get harder. But my faith in the future has moved up a notch.

Posted in books, popular culture, queer, race, sexiness, young adult | 1 Comment

The Pink Tax is Some Sex Difference Bullshit

A while back, I was in the market for a day hiking backpack. I needed something that could carry more clothing and more food than my current pack. I settled on two packs that had the same water capacity, same size number, basically same pocket, strap, and pole-carry features. One was red-gray and the other was “reflecting pond/Andean toucan” color. Guess which was the “women’s” backpack (clearly denoted by the “women’s symbol” on the description tag)? Now guess which was $15 more?

I went to a local outdoor store that sold both packs for the different prices and asked the manager what the fuck was the difference. I assumed he would tell me the women’s pack had special cushions for my ovaries or extra pockets for my many, many tampons. He said the only notable difference was that the red-gray pack, the “men’s” pack (so called  on Amazon), was one inch longer. The men’s pack was made slightly longer in the torso because all men are taller than women. ALL OF THEM. Because I’m tall, the manager recommended I buy the men’s pack as it would actually fit better. I got to save $15 and get one more inch of space, which was the whole fucking reason for getting a new pack. Yay me! But also, fuck cultural assumptions of sex difference that result in bullshit like the pink tax.

Exhibit #1: cultural binarism, or the idea that binary sex difference (male or female) is the most important difference in the universe and that’s why we have to separate bathrooms and locker rooms and toy aisles and backpacks. Sex difference is basically this “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” bullshit. Don’t get me wrong, every single person has a specific and unique body with specific features and unique capacities. And even though human bodies are largely the same and function largely the same, bodies do have biological and genetic differences. Like I’m taller than some and thinner than others. So the deal with sex difference is that it presumes the sex assigned to your unique body (generally based on genital appearance, but also sometimes hormones, gonads, and chromosomes) makes you fundamentally different from some people and fundamentally the same as other people.

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I’m pretty sure all ladies basically have this inside them. It’s why we like pink so much. Genetics.

I’m a lot taller than some people and that can be a significant physical difference but we don’t see height as a fundamental difference. That’s why we don’t have bathrooms and locker rooms organized by height. BUT WHAT IF WE DID??? We have this idea that men and women shouldn’t use the same bathroom because they’ll be having sex in there or be sexually stalked or it will be the end of the world or something because ANARCHY. Caveat: some people do weird and fucked up shit in bathrooms. But this cultural binarism argument—that men and women are fundamentally different and thus need separate bathroom spaces—could really be made for any difference. Watch me do it:

  • We need to divided bathrooms by height: over 5’9 bathrooms and under 5’9 bathrooms. People above a certain height are able to look over stall doors and peep; people under a certain height are able to look under stall doors and creep. We need separate bathroom spaces because this critical physical difference leads to uncomfortable, sexually dangerous situations.

Watch me do it again:

  • We need to divide bathrooms by age: over 50 bathrooms and under 50 bathrooms. People over 50 take more time and thus need more space. They are are also more susceptible to being sexual victims of the high-sex drive of the under 50 crowd. We need separate bathroom spaces because this critical physical difference leads to uncomfortable, sexually dangerous situations.

Just to be clear, this “fundamental body difference leading to sexually threatening or compromising situations” is the same argument used to keep Black people out of White bathrooms.

Exhibit #2: the pink tax,* or when a product or service for women is arbitrarily more expensive than an equivalent product or service for men. The pink tax might extend to when female-body products like birth control pills or tampons are more luxury-taxed or harder to obtain than men’s similar products. But often the pink tax is way more sexistly overt: it’s when identical products like razors or services like dry cleaning are just different prices for men and women. So that pink razor sitting in the “women’s shave needs” aisle is a dollar more than the gray razor made by the same company but sitting in the “men’s shave needs” aisle. Or a lady is charged more for the blouse she took to the dry cleaners even though it’s the same fabric and ACTUALLY LESS MATERIAL than the men’s shirt. The pink tax is some arbitrary bullshit but it feeds on cultural binarism aka the idea that women and men are fundamentally different and thus cannot use the same products and services even if there’s little difference in the actual product or service.

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So back to my pack. According to the store manager, the major difference was length; the men’s pack was designed for a slightly taller body. Yet instead of labeling the packs according to height difference, they were labeled according to sex difference. (We were left to fill in the blanks with stereotypes about all men being naturally taller and thus in need of man pack and women as generally shorter cause vaginas or something.) The ladies pack was then sold at a higher price even though there was literally less pack. And women, who historically earn less than men in the U.S., have to pay more for less, unless a kind store manager tells them the skinny and gives them an awesome local’s discount to boot.

The pink tax is some sex difference bullshit.

 

*I didn’t even know this term until a student came to my office and talked to me about it. You’re never too old or too educated to find out something new and fucked up about the world, and then process the shit out of it.

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(Don’t Call Clinton a) Bitch, Please

The New York Times says we should want a bitch in the White House. Or, a little more specifically (and a little less clickbaity), writing for the New York Times opinion page, Andi Zeisler of Bitch Media proposes embracing the term that’s been so maliciously lobbied against Hillary Clinton. Zeisler’s argument is that Clinton’s called a bitch because she doesn’t put being likable above all else and because she has presidential-level tenacity and ambition. Zeisler evokes Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s 2008 declaration that “bitches get stuff done” and asks “what if that’s not a bad thing”?

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I like where Zeisler’s going but, before jumping on the bitch bandwagon, I want to take a little stroll down language, meaning, and reclamation lane.

Most words are what we in the biz call sign systems or sign chains: they communicate complex and extended meanings. Take the term “public bathroom.” In the U.S., a public bathroom probably won’t have a bath but we all know what’s in there and what it’s for. Here’s another one: “9/11.” It’s just two numbers. But for those in the U.S. of a certain age, these two numbers immediately evoke images of death, destruction, fear, loss, and war. The meaning tied into those numbers is much more than just the sum of the numbers themselves. Here’s one more: “feminist.” It characterizes a person who has particular social and institutional views, politics, and goals. And yet when a person is publicly called a feminist, it might have little to do with her political leanings and everything to do with how she is perceived as shrill, unfeminine, opinionated, and man-hating. In other words, a bitch.

Some words are loaded with histories of abuse and degradation. Some words were created for the explicit purpose of dehumanizing and justifying oppression. You know that old kiddy rhyme “sticks and stones can break my bones but words will never hurts me”? That rhyme is BULLSHIT. Words can absolutely hurt. They can invalidate. They can belittle. And, very significantly, some words are used to incite and justify violence.

Reclamation is the project of taking the shitty part of a particular term and dispersing it, then replacing with more positive stuff. Reclamation has been fairly successful with the term “queer.” Sixty years ago (let’s get real, twenty years ago), queer was not something you could just call people. Or actually you could if you wanted to demean or belittle that person. Today, I teach for a Queer Studies program; in my classroom, the term is not only acceptable, it’s considered more appropriate than some other terms. Queer is now often used to give people respect and humanity, to create inclusion. My 69-year-old mother used to avoid using that term like the fucking plague, and she now proudly tells people her daughter teaches queer theory. Queer shows the power of reclamation.

Now let’s look at the N-word. That’s right, I’m not even gonna write it. That’s because this term has not been successfully reclaimed. Mass inhumanity and violence happened alongside this term and, while some have tried to bend it toward an inclusion and family meaning, it’s not been able to fully shake the filthy legacy. It’s unusable by ethical White people, and still controversial when used by Black people (see Larry Wilmore’s Correspondents Dinner speech).*

I don’t know exactly why some terms have a chance at reclamation and others just don’t. I’m guessing it’s an intricate balance of the histories and legacies poured into the word plus time, distance, and respect. My point is this: reclamation has a ton of potential but isn’t a guaranteed success. Some words never shake free.

Back to the bitch. Zeisler acknowledges that people are never gonna stop calling Clinton a bitch (cause haters, also cause gendered expectations). So Zeisler’s like, cool let’s just fucking reclaim this term then. Let Clinton embrace her bitchness, let the term signal her get-things-done attitude and her ceiling-breaking pathway to the Presidency. Zeisler urges us to frame Clinton as “the bitch America needs.”

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I found this by typing “Clinton bitch meme” into Google images. If I can give you one piece of advice today: don’t do this.

Great. Cool. I like it. In theory. But also, bitch is deeply historically and socially situated. It doesn’t just name a tough person who doesn’t fall into gender line, it’s systematically used to invalidate women by dehumanizing them, effectively reducing them to a breeding animal in need of control. Bitch is also frequently used to create an allowable context for violence, rape, and murder against women. That’s why every Law & Order creeper says: “the bitch got what she deserved.”

Not everything is equivalent, but let’s play the equivalent game. If mass publics were systematically calling President Obama a “porch monkey” (yes, I know some did and yes, I know, GROSS), I wonder how many articles would declare that he should embrace and reclaim the term because his Blackness is a strength and a valuable asset to his Presidency. I’m guessing that few people asked President Obama to channel his strength and value through a really disgusting racist term.

There’s power in flipping negatives into positives and simultaneously justifying behavior that doesn’t fall into stratified gender ideals. But I don’t know if we can just flip the script on bitch, or if Clinton should feel obligated to embrace this label as something that empowers her and validates her kick-assness. I’m not sure if bitch can be totally reclaimed, and I’m not totally convinced it should be.

But this is just one bitch’s opinion.

 

*rather than saying “the N-word,” some of my Black students will replace the term with the word “ninja.” I don’t know exactly why this happens, but it’s clever-as-fuck.

Posted in culture, feminism, gender, popular culture, queer, society | Leave a comment